Opinions & Ideas

Category: Books Page 1 of 6



I really enjoyed reading “The Fall of the House of Dixie” written by   Bruce Levine and published by Random House. It combines a succinct account of the origins and course of the American Civil War of 1861 to 1865, with a deeper examination of public opinion in Confederacy.

The range of opinion in the states that  permitted slavery, was wide.

 Indeed four “slave states”, Kentucky, Maryland, Delaware and   Missouri never left the Union at all.. President Lincoln was keen to keep these states in the Union and that is why he did not abolish slavery in these states until the end of the War, whereas he liberated slaves elsewhere on 1 January 1863.

The most radical Southern advocates of leaving the Union to preserve slavery , were to be found in the Deep South, notably South Carolina ,whose state forces fired the first shot of the War.

Other more northerly states, like Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and Arkansas, initially declined to join the Confederacy until forced to take sides by the course of events

During my five years closely observing US politics as EU Ambassador in Washington, I noted that, even to this day, these latter states tend to have a more moderate political stance than Deep South states.

Even within parts of states, voting patterns dating back to the stance taken in the Civil War, persist to this day eg in Eastern Tennessee

The “Deep South” states produced cotton and other crops, using a Plantation System, which would not have been workable without slave labour. The other states had other options.

A majority of the white population in the Confederate states did not own slaves, but slaves made up a significant share of the wealth of those who did, which explains why this section of the white population went to such lengths to protect slavery.

 As the slave trade had been abolished in 1808, slaves were valuable in financial terms. Slave owning was profitable. Poor whites , on the other hand, were driven into badly paid casual work because of competition from the slave system.

Why did non slave owning whites fight so hard to protect slavery?  

I think this can be partly explained by an almost religious sense of racial superiority, and by a fear of loss of relative status ,if slaves became free.

The condition of slaves was appalling. Slaves were whipped by their masters for transgressions.

 In practice many of them could not marry, because a husband could be sold to a different owner to the one that bought his wife.

In some states, slaves were forbidden to be educated. Even to this day, there is a lack of investment in  basic education in some of the former Confederate States.

The deep racism that underlay slavery came to light when, towards the end of the war, manpower for the Confederate Army was scarce.  An Irish general in the Confederate Army, Patrick Cleburne, proposed that Blacks be recruited to Confederate Army in return for being freed of slavery.

The Confederate War Department rejected the proposal on the grounds that Black people would not be suitable for military service on grounds of  “natural dullness, cowardice and indolence”. This was  racist ideological rubbish , as shown by the exceptional bravery of the Black Americans who fought in the Union Army. Black soldiers in the Union Army, if captured, were likely to be executed in defiance of the conventions of war.

 In the end, very few were recruited, to the Confederate forces, largely because the promise of liberation was confined to the soldier himself, and not to his wife and children.

What happened to the liberated slaves after the war was over?

This question is not explored as fully  in this book as I would have liked. In Georgia, a large part of the confiscated land in the state was allocated by Union General William Sherman to be given  in 40 acre holding to former slaves.

 But in other places, the confiscated land was sold off, at a discount, to speculators from the North. Elsewhere the ex slaves were left to their own devices.

Indeed an attempt was made to reintroduce elements of slavery through so called “black codes” which restricted free movement, and wage bargaining by ex slaves.

There is one issue , very topical today, which is touched on briefly….voting rights for African Americans.

In an impromptu speech, delivered just  after the War had ended, President Lincoln suggested that the newly liberated African Americans might be given the right to vote. One of the people in the audience for that speech was John Wilkes Booth, an actor . On hearing this suggestion, Booth immediately set about plotting to murder President Lincoln, an enterprise  which unfortunately he completed successfully.

As I said at the outset, this is an excellent book. It relies on private correspondence, as well as public statements,  to gain insights into public opinion in the Confederacy.


I have just finished reading two very well written biographies of Conservative Prime Ministers, Neville Chamberlain and Edward Heath, the first of whom held Prime Ministerial office in the 1930’s and the latter in the 1970’s. 

“Neville Chamberlain’s legacy…Hitler , Munich and the path to war”  was written by Nicholas Milton, published by Pen and Sword.

The other book is an autobiography , and is entitled “The Course of My life “ and is by  Edward Heath, and published  in 1998 by Hodder and Stoughton.

Chamberlain and Heath’s political lives span the entire period of British history from 1920 to 2000, and the two books are a good introduction to this long period of British history, and show how the priorities ( and “philosophy”) of a major political party  adapts to changed circumstances.


Neville Chamberlain is, of course, remembered for his attempts to find a modus vivendi with Hitler by forcing Czechoslovak territorial concessions. But there was much more to Chamberlain than this.

He was Minister for Health in the 1920s, and was responsible for initiating a huge programme of social housing. 

He introduced Widows Pensions.

 He was a “Levelling up “ Prime Minister , who actually did some levelling up. 

He was not impeded in this by any free market dogma. He had been a local councillor and Mayor in Birmingham before entering the House of Commons, and had seen poverty at first hand. 

He was no pacifist. As Chancellor of the Exchequer, after the 1936 General Election, he imposed a 3p in the £ income tax increase to pay for more defence spending, particularly of aircraft. This investment proved important in the Battle of Britain.

But when it came to negotiating for peace, Chamberlain failed to understand Hitler, who was a gambler and utterly reckless. Chamberlain acted towards Hitler as if he was a normal calculating politician. 

Chamberlains did buy significant extra time for British rearmament by appeasing Hitler in 1938.

 The ”Irish Times” wrote in September 1938 of this that Chamberlain 

“had done more than any other individual save mankind from another war”.

The paper added that this had required great courage. De Valera also admired Chamberlains policy in 1938.

If Chamberlain’s political life is to be evaluated on the basis of whether he achieved his goal, which was peace in Europe, he failed, and the failure was sadly evident to him before his death in 1940.


The great goal of Edward Heath’s political life also was peace in Europe. Heath sought to reach that goal by bringing the UK into the European Union, which he saw as a structure of peace in Europe, binding countries so closely together  economically that they could never contemplate war with one another. 

Fortunately for Edward Heath , he did not live to see  his work  partly undone, when the UK  voted to leave the EU in the 2016 Referendum. He had died in 2005.

Edward Heath was an excellent writer,  and his autobiography keeps the reader’s attention over its full 736 pages. 

He gives a good account of his personal life.

He was brought up in a semi detached house on the Kent coast. His father was a qualified carpenter who made a living as a small builder. 

Edward Heath became an undergraduate in Oxford University before the War, on the basis of his academic results. While there he became active in college politics, and in the student Conservative Party. 

As a student politician, he opposed Chamberlains appeasement politics in 1938, having observed Hitlers Nuremberg Rally in person. 

The book gives an entertaining account of Heath’s search for a parliamentary seat after the War,  in which he  had served bravely.

He gives an entertaining account of his conversations with different constituency associations.

 One association wanted an assurance that he would reply to all correspondence personally , and in longhand, as the previous MP had done. Heath would not give that assurance, so he had to look elsewhere.

Another wanted an MP who might become a Minister. 

This  seat was Bexley in Kent, just on the eastern edge of London. He was elected to serve that constituency in the General Election of 1950. Heath served it loyally as its MP. And Bexley remained loyal to him too, despite his public differences with the leadership of Margaret Thatcher.

Heath devotes much of the book to his work in negotiating British entry to the EU. 

 He points out that the true political nature of the EU was set out for the British people. It was not presented as just an economic arrangement. This was done before their Parliament voted to join the EU and the people approved it on this basis in a referendum in 1975.  They were not misled at the time of that referendum, as Brexiters tried to argue in 2016.

Heath  gives his version of the difficult relationship he had with Margaret Thatcher. 

Early in their career they had much in common, and were good friends. It is a pity she did not find an opportunity to bring him back into government at some stage after she replaced him as leader of the Party in 1977.  On the other hand he may have expected too much too soon. 

 The breach between them, and their philosophies remains unhealed, with the Thatcher version of conservatism ultimately triumphant. 

The title of the Chamberlain book suggests the book would reveal Chamberlain’s “legacy.” It does not do so. 

My own assessment is that the actual legacy of Chamberlain’s efforts to avoid a Second World War was to give any form of “appeasement”  a bad name. The perceived failure of what is called appeasement in 1938 has led to mistakes by British and American leaders negotiating with dictators since then…..for example by making the wrong assumption that Saddam Hussein had weapons  of mass destructionin 1991 , when he did not,  and  then going to war on that  false basis. 

Hitler may not have been bluffing in 1938, but Saddam WAS bluffing in 1991.

Both Prime Ministers has outside hobbies which helped them keep their minds relaxed despite the pressures of Prime Ministerial office. 

In Chamberlains case, his interests were angling, birdwatching and the study of moths and butterflies. 

In Heath’s case, his outside interests were music and sailing, in both of which he reached a very high standard.


The Chamberlain book deals very slightly with his relations with Ireland. 

He settled the economic war in 1938, on financial terms that were favourable to Ireland, something that is forgotten in Ireland. 

He also gave Ireland back the Treaty ports, which enabled Ireland to remain neutral in the war. 

These  two very important developments are not explored in the book.

In his book, Edward Heath devotes a chapter to Ireland. 

He approved the introduction of internment without trial  by the Stormont  government. This was justified that juries would be intimidated because juries would be intimidated. He seems to have given insufficient thought, then or since, to the outworking of this radical decision. He did not explore alternatives.

On the other hand, he was the first UK Prime Minister to say that the UK had no selfish interest in Ireland. He was the first UK PM to visit this state , when he met Liam Cosgrave in Baldonnel in 1973. Earlier Britsh PMs, in the previous 50 years, had expected their Irish counterpart to go to London.

He sought to negotiate a settlement to the conflict in the Agreement reached at Sunningdale.  He claimed  that , at Sunningdale in 1973, Liam Cosgrave lacked the courage to  promise to hold a referendum to remove Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution.  These Articles included a territorial claim by Dublin to rule Northern Ireland. This was to be  a price  paid for setting up a Council of Ireland, with consultative functions. 

Given that partition had been accepted in practice by Dublin as early as 1925, this territorial claim should never have been inserted in the Irish Constitution in 1937.  But once it was there, removing it was bound to be divisive. 

Heath seemed to have forgotten that Cosgrave headed a coalition government, and that some of his  strong minded Ministers were quite nationalistic. The main opposition party, Fianna Fail, was even more nationalistic. The risk of defeat in such a Referendum, and a resulting government split , was vey very high. 

Lack of courage was the last thing of which Liam Cosgrave could be accused..

This shows that even enlightened British leaders sometimes have a poor understanding of Ireland. 

Democracy in Peril

 “Peril” by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, published by Simon and Schuster, is an account of the last year of the outgoing Trump Administration, and the first year of the Biden Administration.

It is full of atmospheric detail, but lacks analysis and an easy to follow and coherent narrative.

I found the background to the rushed US and allied exit from Afghanistan revealing, but also incomplete.

I was in Washington, as EU Ambassador,  in 2009 when President Obama announced to assembled Ambassadors that he planned to dramatically increase US troop presence in the country….. to initiate the  so called “Surge” .

 Obama was motivated by a desire to strengthen  the US global military position, and also to make Afghanistan  human rights respecting democracy.

 It seemed over ambitious to me at the time, in light of the very recent  US failure to achieve similar goals in Iraq.

“Peril” tells us that Obama’s vice President at the time, Joe Biden, was totally opposed to the Surge. But Hillary Clinton, Secretary Gates and the generals prevailed. The Surge went ahead.

 When President Trump took over, he wanted to get US troops out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible. But inertia , and lack of focus on his part,  meant that he never actually did it.  It fell to Biden to implement  this part of the Trump agenda ( just as he follows the Trump agenda on China).

 The actual withdrawal was a botched job, and Afghans who had loyally served the allies were abandoned.  Woodward and Costa offer no explanations for this.

The book does offer an insight into Biden’s style of negotiation with Congress. He is tough and relentless in his pursuit of detail. He was, and is, determined to put money in the pockets of working class Americans . He has been so good at this that his Stimulus Bills may have contributed to demand led inflation in the US.

Did Donald Trump’s contribution to inciting violence, and   to the attempt to overturn the vote of the people, add up to a crime for which he could be convicted in a court of law?

I believe the answer is to be found in the speech made by Senator Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate leader, after the second attempt to impeach Trump had failed.

Describing what happened on 6 January as a “disgrace” and an “act of terrorism”, he said

“There is no question that President Trump is practically and morally responsible “

but added

 “by the strict criminal standard, the President’s speech probably was not incitement”.

Donal Trump, after all he has done, still leads the Republican polls.

The peril to American democracy comes from kindly, decent Americans, who are putting cultural and party loyalty , ahead of the interests of democracy in America.


I have just reread “Revolutionary Iran, a history of the Islamic Republic” by the late Michael Axworthy, who was a leading expert on Iran in the UK Foreign Office.

Iran is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations. Its population is well educated and instinctively pro Western.  70% of Iranians said in an opinion poll a few years back that they would favour better relations with the West.

The terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11 came from America’s ally Saudi Arabia, and not from Iran.

 Yet it is Iran than has had to endure the most severe western trade and investment sanctions over the last 30 years, while Saudi Arabia is courted assiduously by both Trump and Biden Administrations.

Iran was supportive of the US in the wake of 9/11, and allowed US planes to over fly Iran during initial US actions  against the Taliban in Afghanistan  who were sheltering the 9/11 terrorists. Yet President Bush included Iran in the “axis of Evil”  in the speech he gave in response to 9/11. I do not understand why he did this.

This   negative US attitude to Iran may be due to the fact that Israel has developed back channels for cooperation with the Saudis,  while the Iran/Israel relationship is marked by enduring hostility. But the US should consider itself free to develop its own foreign policy without always adopting the Israeli view. In any event, the Israeli position has not been consistent. Israel helped Iran in its decade long war with Iraq.

The policy of sanctioning Iran dates back to legislation passed by the US Congress in 1996, and has become ever more severe since then.

 When one looks at the failure of US sanctions in changing the politics of Cuba, and the continuing failure of US sanctions against Iran, one must question the efficacy of sanctions as  a diplomatic tool.

In recent times the Iranian regime has indeed become more and more oppressive, with liberal us of execution as a means of dealing with opposition.

 But there have been times when the Iranian leadership was open to compromise. Khatami and Rafsanjani were open to compromise, but these opportunities were not taken up in any sustained way by western governments. In the early years after the Islamic revolution, election were somehat free and fair, but the 2009 elections were rigged.

There is a long standing democratic tradition in Iran, dating back to the democratic constitution of 1906.

Unfortunately that 1906 constitution was overthrown in 1908 by the then Shah, with help from the Russians and the British, who felt they could more easily do business with an autocratic regime. A similar exercise in supressing Iranian democracy was undertaken by the last Shah with aid of the British and the Americans in the 1950s. Again the outsiders felt they could get better access to Iranian oil from autocrats than from democrats.

Axworthy deals extensively with long and  bloody war that followed from an Iraqi attack on Iran.

This book filled a major gap in my knowledge of the Middle East, and I recommend it.


 A century ago, events in Britain influenced Ireland far more than they do today. 

 So understanding British politics of that era, was more important  than now to understanding Irish politics.

 That is what makes“ The strange survival of Liberal Britain….. Politics and Power Before the First World War” by Vernon Bogdanor so interesting.

The book  is published by Biteback Publishing .

It is an account of the politics of the British Isles between 1890 and 1914, and is essential reading for a student of Irish history.

 It is comprehensive. It gives a good account of the Boer War, of the struggle for votes for women, the rise of the Labour Party, and of the introduction of unemployment and sickness insurance.  It deals with the evolution of British  Foreign policy, including the alliance with Japan and, the increasing, though not inevitable, rivalry with Germany. It covers the tragic events that led to the First World War.

 It is, in every sense, a big book.  

The title of the book is misleading, in the sense that  the book is about far more than the survival of Liberalism.

It explores the issue of tariff reform, forgotten today, but politically convulsive for the first  20 years of the  20th Century,

 In the 1890’s, a leading figure in the Conservative and Unionist Party, Joseph Chamberlain, committed his party to what he called “tariff reform”. 

 By this he meant something was quite radical, turning the British Empire, which spanned every continent on the globe, into an economic union, like the EU is today. 

 As with the founders of the EU in the 1950’s, Chamberlain envisaged giving trade preference to goods produced within the British Empire, over imports from elsewhere (like continental Europe and the US), and thereby strengthening the political unity of the Empire. 

In the 1890s , Empires were regarded as progressive concepts. They were seen as vehicles for the promulgation of civilized ideas, such as the rule of law. 

 Other powers, like France, the Netherlands and the United States, were also seeking to build their own Empires. Empires were seen as efficient, enjoying economies of scale that smaller powers could not match. “The Empire” was something that helped keep England, Scotland and Wales united in a shared endeavour.

 So Chamberlain’s proposal for Imperial trade preference was seen, at least superficially, to be going with, rather than against, the grain of history. 

As a result of Chamberlain’s advocacy, the Conservatives were to promote tariff reform, on an on and off basis, for almost 30 years.

  But it proved to be a vote loser.

 This was because the British Empire could not produce all the food that Britons wanted to eat, and tariff reform would have required a tax on food coming from outside the Empire.

 High food prices, then as now, were politically lethal for the Conservatives.  Chamberlain’s protectionist ideas also ran against the free trade, laissez faire, ideology that had dominated economic thinking in Britain for much of the nineteenth century. 

Winston Churchill, a young Conservative MP, left the party and became a Liberal in 1904, because he believed in free trade. Joseph Chamberlain’s son, Neville, would put some of his father’s protectionist ideas into practice, as Chancellor of the Exchequer in the 1930s.

Joseph Chamberlain was a dynamic force. A successful businessman, and Mayor of Birmingham, he was non conformist by religion, and was an early advocate of old age pensions and anti poverty programmes.  He was originally a Liberal MP, but left the Party because of its support for Home Rule for Ireland. He was never really a Conservative.

Tariff Reform is just one of the many themes explored in Vernon Bogdanor’s comprehensive history of the 30 years preceding the First World War. It is a history of policy making, rather than just of politics. 

The drama is there, but so also is the solid content.

The book covers developments affecting Ireland, just as it covers England, Wales and Scotland. 

Ireland was run by 29 different government Departments, each with its own board, and all supervised by a single non resident Chief Secretary for Ireland, usually an English or Scottish MP from the governing party in Westminster. 

By some measures, Ireland did well during this final period of British rule.

The amount spent by the UK central Exchequer in Ireland increased more quickly than the amount of tax raised here.

 In 1893, there was a surplus on the budget of the Irish Administration of £2million and Ireland was making  net contribution to the overall UK budget.

 In contrast, by 1912, the surplus was turned into a deficit of £1.5million. This was for two reasons……

  • the cost of old age pensions (introduced in 1909) for which a lot of Irish people qualified, and
  • the UK Exchequers subsidies to the transfer of Irish land from landlords to tenants under legislation passed in 1903.

Ireland was actually over represented in the House of Commons, with one MP for every 44,000 voters as one for every 66,000 in England

But that was not worth much.  The only input anyone, elected in Ireland, had to the process by which Ireland was actually governed was through the Irish MPs in the House of Commons .  But Irish MPs, other than a few Unionists, rarely became Ministers.

 This was totally insufficient,  and  it explained the growing demand  here for a Home Rule Parliament in Dublin , with its own elected Ministers, to take over the powers of the over stretched Chief Secretary for Ireland. 

The idea of Home Rule was resisted in Britain. It was seen as heralding the beginning of the disintegration of the Empire. As Lord Salisbury, Prime Minister at the beginning of the period, put it.   

”If Ireland goes, India will go 50 years later” 

The forces in Britain ranged against Home Rule were substantial and serious. 

This is why it is truly remarkable that Home Rule for Ireland passed into law, without a shot being fired, in September 1914.

 This peaceful achievement by Irish politicians in Westminster, like John Redmond, John Dillon and Joe Devlin, was largely ignored by the Government at the beginning of our recent decade of  Centenary Commemorations. It was ignored in favour of physical force nationalism.

Bogdanor deals with how Home Rule became law, peacefully, in 1914. 

The Liberal government of the day depended on the Irish Party and the Labour Party to stay in office.

 The Liberal Chancellor of the Exchequer, David Lloyd George introduced a radical budget. This budget was rejected in the House of Lords, creating a constitutional crisis. In response the Liberal government introduced a Parliament Bill to curb the power of the Lords to veto legislation passed in the Commons. 

The Irish Party then told the government that they in turn would oppose the budget, unless the Parliament Bill removed the Lords’ indefinite veto on Home Rule. 

It was brinkmanship, but it worked. 

If the Lords had not rejected the budget in the first place, Home Rule might have been postponed by a Liberal Government, who had only a half hearted commitment to it.

The book also deals with the lead up to the First World War.

Joe Chamberlain in the 1890s had favoured a Teutonic (Protestant) alliance between the UK, the US and Germany. But majority opinion in Britain preferred closeness with France and Russia.

 The British Cabinet seems to have had little discussion of foreign and defence policy in the years before the War. Exaggerated reliance was placed on the Royal Navy, and the Army was neglected.  In general, the Cabinet had no agenda, no regular meetings, and no minutes in this period!

  It was the German invasion of Belgium, in August 1914, that enabled the UK to enter the War, as a united country on the allied side.

 If Germany had avoided Belgium, the UK would have been deeply split on whether to support France militarily, or stay out.

 As far as war guilt is concerned, it was the belligerent and irresponsible demands of Austria on Serbia, that dragged Russia and Germany into war with one another.

I strongly recommend this book. The reader will find that many of the problems we sense as being unique to our era were around in our grand parents time too.


I have just finished reading “Traitor King by Andrew Lownie. It covers the activities of King Edward the Eighth after his abdication in 1936.  Ostensibly he abdicated because he insisted on marrying a divorced woman, Wallis Simpson. But there were worries in government circles about his political views and his temperament.

As Prince of Wales, and briefly as King, he had led a full life, with plenty to do, and plenty of time for affairs and entertainments as well.  He had spent his entire life as heir to the throne surrounded by servants who attended to his every whim. He became used to adulation.

After he abdicated, all this changed.  He was no longer a King, just the Duke of Windsor. His wife was not a Queen, and was not allowed to describe herself with the prefix HRH (a matter about which he became obsessed).. Initially he lived in Paris and the French Riviera with Wallis Simpson.

 He doted on her and became dependent on her. But she found him boring. She found it difficult living up to the legend of a romantic love she did not feel.

He no longer had anything useful to do, no prearranged programme. Their days were filled with private dinners and lunches and little else.

As time went by, he wanted to be back at the centre of things. This desire for attention led to his entanglement with Germany.

His Fascist and pro German sympathies had been well known even before he abdicated. The British Union of Fascists even held a demonstration demanding that his abdication not take place until there had been a referendum on it.

His first formal trip, after his abdication, was a high profile visit to Nazi Germany.  He wanted to make a similar high-profile trip to the United States. But the reaction to his German trip was so bad that this had to be called off.

He soon became convinced that Britain could not defeat Germany in a war, and should reconcile with the Nazi regime.

When the War broke out in 1939, he was given a role inspecting the defences on the French and British fronts facing Germany. His report identified the weak point in the Ardennes, which Germany was to exploit to spectacularly a few months later.

 But in his private conversations, he was a defeatist, talking in direct contradiction to the foreign policies of his own government.

When France fell in May 1940, he fled to Spain and later to Portugal.

 Lownie’s book documents his indirect, but extensive, contacts with German agents while in Madrid and Lisbon. He was scheming to get Britain out of the war, and himself back onto the throne.

While he did want peace for its own sake, he also saw either a German victory, or a negotiated peace, as routes towards getting himself back to the throne of England, and a means  of his wife becoming Queen.

 It is pretty clear, from the documentary evidence cited in this book (including German archives discovered after the War), that his activities while in Spain and Portugal in 1940 amounted to treason.

His stay in Europe was cut short when he was sent as Governor of the Bahamas, where he intrigued with isolationists to keep the United States out of the war.

Edward the Eighth was not a stupid man. He had some administrative ability which he demonstrated as Governor of the Bahamas from 1940 to 1945.

 So how could he have allowed himself to become drawn into what he should have seen were treasonable activities?

I suspect the atmosphere in which he grew up, as heir to the throne, led him to believe that normal rules did not apply to him.

This is a highly readable book.


Over the Christmas holiday I read “Poland, a history” by Adam Zamoyski.

The book was published in 2009, and thus predates the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It offers very up to date insights into the vulnerabilities and fears of all the peoples (Poles, Belarussians, Prussians, Ukrainians, Tatars, Lithuanians, and Polish Jews) who live, or lived,  in the area that is now, or once was,  Poland,

It is an area that is witnessing  the most severe and prolonged war conditions in Europe since 1945.

Some centuries ago, Kiev, Lviv and Kherson (now Ukraine) were all actually part of the then Polish/ Lithuanian Commonwealth.

At the time, many western European countries, such as France, were absolute monarchies.

 But the Polish/ Lithuanian Commonwealth was different. It was a limited monarchy, where the King was elected from among  people who were either notable Poles or Lithuanians, or  were  members of the royal family of another European country.

 For example, James, the Duke of York, who went on to become King James the Second of Britain and Ireland, was considered as a candidate to be King of Poland at an earlier point in in his career.

There was no permanent state apparatus in the Commonwealth , and the King could only get things done by operating through the elected Sejm, where unanimous agreement was often needed for big decisions.

 This veto system worked surprisingly well, as long as there was a broad consensus among the Polish and Lithuanian peoples. But when the consensus broke down, the veto was exploited by outside powers , and by over ambitious Poles who wanted to paralyse the state. This eventually led to the carving up of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia.

The Commonwealth was designed to limit state power, in line with ideas that popular during the Enlightenment of the 18th century. These ideas of a limited state still find favour among some conservative Republicans in the US.

The current Polish government, which has tried in recent times to limit the independence of the Polish judiciary, is thus pursuing policies that are contrary to Polish democratic and constitutional traditions.

The same Polish government, having freely joined Germany as a fellow member of the EU in 2000, now wants to sue Germany for damages caused by the German invasion and occupation of Poland in the Second World War. This is shocking.

This war was over well before the EU was formed. If Poland was serious about this claim for World War Two damages, it should have made resolving the issue, a requirement of Polish membership of the EU . It did not do so.

 Now, too late, it is exploiting historical grievances to whip up nationalistic sentiment in Poland. This is deeply destructive. If we go down this road the EU will not survive for long.


I really enjoyed reading “Great Hatred, the Assassination of Field Marshal Sir Henry Wilson MP” by Irish Times journalist Ronan McGreevy.

Henry Wilson was assassinated on 22 June 1922 outside his London home.

A truce in hostilities between the IRB/IRA and the UK had been agreed in July 1921 and was still in force in June 1922.

A constitution for the Irish Free State, based on the Treaty of December 1921 agreed between Irish and British delegations including Michael Collins and David Lloyd George, had been published on 16 June 1922, a week before the assassination of Henry Wilson. 

Wilson was disliked in Ireland, but he was revered in England. He was considered there to have been a key figure in the allied military strategy that saved France in the Great War.

Henry Wilson had been born and raised in Currygrane, near Ballinalee in Co Longford, on a large farm. His family had come to Longford from Ulster in an earlier generation, and Wilson felt himself to be an Ulster man more than a Longford man. David Trimble came from similar Longford stock.

The men who killed Henry Wilson were Reginald Dunne and Joseph O Sullivan. 

Both were native born Londoners of Irish ancestry, and had been active members of the IRB. In London they grew up in deeply Irish culture.

The Supreme Commander of the IRB, at the time of the assassination, was Michael Collins, who was simultaneouslyalso President of Provisional Government of the Irish Free State.

Meanwhile, IRA members opposed to the Treaty and to the Provisional Government, had occupied the Four Courts in Dublin, and other strong points around the country. This was an unsustainable situation for the new state, from a law and order point of view.

When news of the assassination broke, the immediate assumption in British government circles was that it had been ordered by these anti Treaty forces. McGreevy dismisses this theory. 

Another theory was that there had been a standing order from the IRB to assassinate Wilson, and that this had not been withdrawn, notwithstanding the truce and the Treaty. McGreevy does not believe this theory either.

He says O Sullivan and Dunne were scrupulous followers of military discipline who would not have acted on a free lance basis, without clear and current orders.

The author concludes the assassination was actually authorised by Michael Collins himself, in his capacity as commander of the IRB. There is no written evidence of this , as the IRB was a highly secretive society, and left no paper trails.

Why might Collins have issued such an order?

Wilson, who had just retired from the Army, had taken on a role as military advisor to the Northern Ireland (NI) Government. He had recently become a Unionist MP. 

During this time NI security forces had colluded in attacks on Catholics. Apparently Wilson was not involved, and was noteven in Northern Ireland for much of the period. Wilson’s political opinions were, however, well known and highly bigoted. In 1914, as a serving soldier, he had colluded with the Tory Opposition in an attempt to block Home Rule .

But none of these things would seem to rise to a level that would justify the authorisation of an assassination, in 1922during a truce, and while a peace Treaty was in course of ratification.

Collins’ top role in the IRB is very hard to reconcile with his Presidency of the Provisional Government of the Free State.

In this short review, I have focussed on one just one aspect of this multilayered story.

McGreevy gives a sympathetic account of the Wilson, Dunne and O Sullivan families, and their changing fortunes. Heexplains the shifting politics of the time, and of the friendly links between the Wilson family, and their Longford neighbour, General Sean McEoin, “The Blacksmith of Ballinalee”.

Reading this book, I am reinforced in my view that once the gun is introduced into Irish politics, it is very hard to get it out again.


I have just finished reading a book with the above title by Stephen Collins, the noted columnist with the “Irish Times”.

It tells the story of how Irish governments led by Enda Kenny, Leo Varadkar and Miceal Martin,  dealt with fall out from the UK decision to leave the EU. There are so many twists and turns in the narrative that a summary is impossible within the scope of a short review. 

The Irish Foreign Minister at the time of the Brexit Referendum in 2016 was Charles Flanagan, and he reacted to the decision with commendable speed and thoroughness.

 He briefed his counterparts in all 26 remaining EU states about Ireland concerns, namely that of keeping the border open between the two parts of the island and preserving the Republic’s position as a full member of the EU Single Market. This laid the foundation of the consistent support Ireland has had for its position from all the EU institutions.

One political figure who does not emerge with much credit from Collins’ account is the current leader of the UK Labour Party, Keir Starmer. 

In her final days as Prime Minister, Theresa May tried to assemble a majority in Parliament for  deal that would have kept the entire UK in the EU Customs Union, thereby mitigating or removing the need for customs post either in  ports, or on the land border. For this, she needed the support or abstention of the opposition Labour Party. 

As Stephen Collins puts it

“ Corbyn was relatively open the deal, but Keir Starmer, who was in theory strongly pro EU, raised obstacles at every turn .”

This was the last chance of a soft Brexit.  Defeating the Tories took a higher priority for Starmer than preserving good international relations. The story does not create much confidence about the level of responsibility one can expect from a Labour government in the UK.


I have just greatly enjoyed reading Douglas Hurd’s book

 “ Choose your weapons….the British Foreign Secretary , 200 years of Argument , Success and Failure”.

Hurd has had a distinguished career,  including as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is an excellent writer. He combines historical analysis with vivid sketches of political personalities.

Published in 2010, this book shows how the life experiences and assumptions of successive Foreign Secretaries influence the content and outcome of diplomatic policies.

There is a tension , throughout this long period , between two views of how Britain should conduct itself in its relations with its European neighbours.

One view was that the UK should seek to create , and take part in a structure of consultation which would help preserve peace in Europe.

The best exponent of this approach was an Irishman, originally an MP in the pre Union Irish Parliament, Lord Castlereagh.  He helped to ensure that a defeated France was not humiliated in 1815. Arguably his work  in the Congress of Vienna and afterwards helped preserve relative peace in Europe until 1914.

The other view was that the UK should be somewhat more isolationist, intervening to promote liberal causes,  but not becoming entangled in Europe. Lord Palmerston was the best exponent of this approach. There were others who were less flamboyant.

Some figures that are forgotten today get due notice in this book.

The role of Ernest Bevin in helping found NATO,  and thereby committing the US to the defence of Europe,  is recalled and is very relevant to events today , and to the peace of Europe for the last 70 years.

Another figure who get deserved recognition is Austen Chamberlain, the author of the Locarno Pact which reintegrated Germany into good relations with its neighbours and could have kept peace in Europe but for the economic crash and the rise of Hitler in the 1930’s.  

Unlike his half brother, Neville, Austen warned of the danger of Hitler before any other British leader, including Churchill.

The relative economic power of Britain peaked around 1870 and was in slow decline thereafter. But the fact that so many parts of the world were still coloured pink on the map as part of the British Empire led some statesmen to overestimate British power.

In the earlier periods the Foreign Secretary made policy under mild supervision from the Prime Minister. Nowadays the Prime Minister is more central, but a lot depends on personalities.

Anthony Eden was a good and methodical Foreign Secretary , who became a bad Prime Minister , because he had no strong Foreign Secretary to restrain him over Suez.

The UK today is isolating itself in a dangerous way. It is conversing with itself , rather than with its neighbours . None of the statesmen chronicled in this book would have allowed that to happen.

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